September 14, 4233
Milky Way Galaxy (Orion-Perseus Divide)
“We’ll first need to lure the vessel – hereafter known as Necromancer – beneath the cloud layer. We can’t let the rest of its friends know what’s happening. Captain Allston; work with Engineering to modify one of our existing decoys for the job.”
“Necromancer’s beginning her descent captain; they’ve picked up the lure.”
“They haven’t started random bombardments, which suggests that they want us intact. I’m betting that if they pick up our ‘signal leakage’, they’ll try to confirm it, either with scouts or by coming down to look for themselves.”
“No sign of parasite craft; she’s coming in after us herself.”
“Senior Major; dispatch a flight of Warhawks to escort the decoy – assign your best pilots to them. They’ll have to shoot down any incoming scouts. That should convince Necromancer that they’ve found us.”
“Sir, it’s hard to get good readings through this chop, but there are increasing signs of battle readiness aboard the target.”
“Once in atmosphere, we have to snag her before she gets her shield walls up. We won’t be able to knock them down; if it looks like she’s bringing them up, we scrub the op and try again. We won’t get another chance at this if we commit and it goes pear-shaped.”
“Necromancer’s firing thrusters; she’s moving into the Briar Patch, sliding onto the decoy’s six.”
“This hydrogen cloud we’ll call the Briar Patch. This is where we want her; once she’s inside she won’t be able to fire on us or cut herself loose with her point defences, or else risk igniting the cloud and going nuclear.”
Senior Captain Jacob Goldstein rubbed sweaty palms over one another, eyes fixed to the occasionally fuzzy display. Necromancer was – had been for the entire time it was hunting them – well within grappling range, but it remained on the edge of the hydrogen cloud. Just a little closer, he urged. Just a little further down. For a moment, it looked as if the alien was going to stay up there, but then, once and for all proving to Jacob that there was a God, she dropped a dozen kilometers lower.
“Now!” he hissed.
Dozens of hatches along Liberty’s mangled dorsal surface irised open and barb-headed hooks fired out, trailing ‘bucky cables’. Each densely packed cord had the distance to reach across hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, but were strong enough that only a target vessel’s point defences or specialized cutting equipment could burn through them. As the name suggested, grapplers were intended to snare crippled vessels and clutch implacably to their hulls, holding them to await boarding. Some of them were simply kinetic warheads, punching through Necromancer’s hull, their barbed heads snapping open once they were inside. Others flattened themselves against the alien’s armour plating, sealing themselves to it as their onboard AIs ran through every conceivable attachment mechanism. Some initiated magnetic seals, others chemically bonded and still more glowed white-hot, melting themselves together with the metal upon which they lay.
“We have hard contacts on 83% of grapples!” Tactical reported exuberantly.
“Beginning jamming on all frequencies,” Communications noted. “They won’t get a peep out unless we want them too.”
Necromancer was not slow to react and it bucked like a stallion, trying to rip itself free. A few grapples did come loose, but not enough to save it. Its thrusters flared, trying to pull itself back out of Cairn’s cloud layers, but for all its damage, Liberty’s engines were the more powerful of the two and it held the thrashing alien in place, slowly reeling it in. Got you.
“Warhawks away; decoy escorts are doubling back to Necromancer.”
Goldstein nodded. Everyone knew what they had to do now. He could only sit and watch.
The hydrogen cloud might prevent the aliens from firing, but it also kept his birds from doing the same and Senior Major Adolpho Leibowitz chewed the inside of his lip as his formation dove towards Necromancer’s hangar pods; he had assigned six birds per pod with a reserve force of twelve more. Each Warhawk could hold four dozen Marines in full power armour; he was dropping eleven hundred and fifty-two jarheads down the buggers’ throats. Normally, an Independent Spirit-class battleship carried almost four thousand Marines, but the League hadn’t seen the need for that kind of troop commitment on was supposed to be a four-year cakewalk; there’d been questions as to whether or not Liberty had needed any Marines at all.
Which left him trying to take an alien warship of unknown configuration, complement and capability with just over fifteen hundred men and women. When they returned to the League, Leibowitz was going to make known that his opinions on those policies. Oh, he was indeed.
“Ranger Lead, this is Three. Hangar doors are sealed.”
“Ain’t that a shame. All craft – huff and puff.” Little pigs, little pigs – let me come in.
“Confirmed. Borer on-line… now.”
The prow of the Warhawk-class assault boats crackled with energy as their hullborers came to life. Technology that the League had stolen from the Concord, it created a sheath of disruptive energy around the craft, allowing them to burn through a warship’s armoured hull in seconds. It was ineffective against energy; shield walls would stop a borer cold and lasers would pick them off quite easily, thanks to their increased energy signature. Plans to mount borers on missiles were scrapped when it was realized that that disadvantage completely negated even the best EW systems, making those extremely expensive missiles nothing but target practice for a hostile’s point defences.
Borers were also grossly wasteful when it came to their power demands; an assault boat needed virtually of its reactor output to use them and the costs rose exponentially as the shielded item’s mass did; even if it wasn’t completely useless to them, a capital ship simply couldn’t afford the energy expenditure to use a borer system. So, the hullborer remained strictly in the domain of boarding craft.
As Ranger Lead settled down upon the gleaming blood-red surface of an alien hangar, its atmosphere howling out through the perforated remains of its armoured blast doors, Senior Major Leibowitz couldn’t quite hide his grin.
+warning: security breaches all brood pods+
+highthreat forces detected+
+imperative: secure killship. counter-offensive force level one initiated+
“Oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere, major. Breathable, no trace of pathogens.”
“Energy surge from all around us! Defences activating!”
Turrets rose smoothly from the floor and descended from the ceiling of the massive hangar, stitching the debarked Marines with heavy fire. Seven soldiers were blown apart in the opening volley as the survivors scrambled for cover and returned the assault, blasting four of the automatic defences apart. Leibowitz crouched behind Ranger Three’s hull as one of the energy guns fired on his position over and over. “Leibowitz to support – what the hell is taking you so long?”
“Debarking now, sir.”
The rear ramps of two of the Warhawks lowered as League battle tanks ground out, squat and massive on their treads. Dark Lord – Wraith Two – spun its turret around and stitched the ceiling with railgun fire, ripping the defences there to pieces. Last Hope – Wraith One – took precise aim at the main doors that led out of the hangar and blew them inwards. From the other Warhawks, defence drones, heavy weapons pallets and man-mounted gun pods floated down the ramps, the assault boats lifting off to return to Liberty and load themselves with runts – the second wave of the boarding action. It was not by The Book, but The Book had never imagined this kind of clusterfuck; to take Necromancer, they’d need every man and woman that Liberty could spare.
“We’ll hold the bay,” Last Hope’s commander affirmed to Leibowitz. “You get us a new ship.”
Higgins, Alpha Squad’s comp specialist, looked up. “All teams report bays secure; minimal casualties.”
“Right,” Leibowitz nodded. “Let’s go; see if we can find Engineering or Command. I do not want to be sitting on this tub when whoever’s in charge decides to blow it. Damage as little as we can; we’ll have to be flying this bitch home. Alpha Squad: advance.”
+warning: highthreat armoured units detected+
+initial defences: deactivated in all brood pods+
+second wave: initiated+
The interior of the ship was dull red, its passageways large and octagonal. Unlike League or Concordat ships, there were no ladders to other sections, but the decks did slope up and down to higher and lower levels and there were the occasional set of stairs, though each step was wider and longer than any human would ever need.
“Got it!” Higgins proclaimed, detaching his hacking system from the nearby computer panel. “I’m not into their secure files and the system’s fighting me every step of the way, but I got us a schematic before they pulled the plug. Routing it to squad TacData; channel three.”
“I see it; what are we looking at?”
“It seems that Main Engineering’s several decks and half a klick above us.” Higgins highlighted the site on his gauntlet’s display, the corresponding area flickering brightly on Leibowitz’s HUD. “Command’s further towards the bow; two and a half klicks, it looks like.”
Leibowitz nodded, scanning over the map on his HUD. “Drop it to the other squads.”
“Right, sir. Done.”
Before the major could acknowledge Higgins’ work, a burst of light flared down the corridor, smashing into Sesha Vitosky; the blast threw the armoured soldier back against the wall, a smouldering hole in her armour. Her life signs blipped to nil on Leibowitz’s squad status menu; whatever had hit her had burned right through her breastplate and left a cauterized crater the size of a basketball in her chest. Another flash of light crackled down the hall, but this one missed its intended target, leaving a charred, molten streak down one bulkhead. The Marine major scanned for a target, but there was nothing to… wait, there was a shimmer in the air, like a ripple on a clear pond. Got you, he snarled, switching to infrared scanners.
Oh, yes. There was something there, and it was holding a big fucking gun. He put a triplet of explosive darts into it. That same Something screamed and fell backwards, thrashing for a moment before laying still. Unfortunately, the attacker wasn’t alone. Further up the corridor, more of them were trampling down the ramp, their weapons glowing brighter as they heated and prepared to fire. “Infrared view!” Leobowtiz snapped to his squad. “Track targets and open fire!”
Corporal Denise Rentwell knelt besides the body of one of the attackers. It was about a foot shorter than a human in power armour, but it was wearing armour of its own. Centaur-shaped, it had four splayed feet, two small arms on the front of its torso and two larger ones where the shoulders would be on an actual centaur. Those arms were very strong; the creatures carried their heavy guns in them and one of them had picked up PFC Welshburg and thrown him around like a toy. A human in power armour weighed almost half a ton and the creature hadn’t even seemed bothered by the effort.
Those arms were prosthetic, though. Their primary manipulators appeared to be the four large tentacles around their mouths. The squad that Kappa had run across had had a pair of unarmed crew, setting what looked like explosive charges, but they hadn’t had time to finish them. Considering what the ugly sons-of-bitches were doing with those tentacles, they were stronger than they looked too.
Kappa had gone down fighting, but the aliens were hard to kill in that armour of theirs; they’d overrun her unit. She was the only one left and her comm had been fried when one of the bastard’s plasma casters had nearly taken her head off. Those guns were short-ranged, but they burned right through Marine armour.
She didn’t have time to mourn, though. Denise hefted her carbine, moving away from the bodies of her fallen squad-mates. Out of contact or not, she had a mission to complete – find Command and take it, or die trying.
Resistance increased steadily the deeper they got into the target ship; the armoured cloaking suits that the defenders wore didn’t just work on the visible spectrum; they could hide from infrared and ultraviolet scans as well. But only one at a time, thankfully. It forced Alpha Squad to keep a third of their number on each setting, but they could still be ambushed. Sonic scans could hear the bastards coming, but not if they were waiting in ambush. Leibowitz had lost five more soldiers to their attacks, putting Alpha Squad down to six troopers.
His other units were reporting similar difficulties; several were pinned down under heavy fire. Even with the element of surprise, the aliens were consolidating their forces and they had a fuck of a lot more troops to throw at his Marines then he did to hit them with; bogging them down was the aliens’ best way to win this and it was looking like that that was what was going to happen.
“Don’t play with that. You don’t know what it does.” Ensign Rita St. Clair chastised Ensign Walter Reeds as the latter fiddled with one of the computers in Necromancer’s hangar control deck.
“I’m fairly certain that they don’t have a self-destruct command linked to computers in their hangar bay that can be accessed by invading forces. That’s a special brand of idiocy.”
St. Clair frowned, looking about nervously as her fingers tapped the stock of her shotcannon. She, Reeds and twenty-two other cadets had been left with the tanks in the target’s port ventral boat bay, the rest were helping to secure the surrounding decks. Casualties were high. “I thought they shut down all the systems in the compromised decks down to keep us out?”
“This one didn’t get the message; it looks like its network router was damaged when Sergeant Hennessy cleared out the ceiling defences; some of Wraith Two’s fire must have ricocheted into the control deck. I’m trying to run a translation program now.”
“On an alien computer system? Walter, we can’t even get League and Concord systems to interface properly.”
“That’s because the Concords eat whatever crap the megacorp du jour shovels in front of them after greasing Parliament to call it the best computer system ever. But this – it’s for flight control, with a limited vocabulary. ‘Open bay doors’ ‘summon repair techs’. If we can find the analogous terms, it’ll give us a baseline to get into the rest of their system.” A few minutes passed as Reeds mumbled to himself, checking between the laptop he’d hooked into the alien computer and its own display screen. “Ah – got something.”
“It’s…” Walter tapped the icon on his laptop and the corresponding one on the alien computer flashed. There was a groan from inside the bay and the tanks spun their turrets around to confront a new threat – which turned out to be a grav-lift platform descending from the ceiling.
“What the Hell are you runts doing in there?” Sergeant Hennessy demanded of her superior officers.
Reeds tapped his helmet comm. “Sorry about that, sergeant. I got access to this elevator system. I’m just comparing it to the schematics Alpha Squad sent…. it looks like this shaft joins into a main lift tube that runs from the lowest levels to the upper decks. We’ve got three large service corridors that run bow to aft that intersect the main tube. The dorsal and ventral ones look like they’re just cargo and ship service tubes, but the middle one… I think it runs right to Main Engineering. Probably for core jettisons, major parts service. These are big corridors.”
“You don’t say.” There was a pause, then Dark Lord wheeled forward, settling onto the elevator. “Send me for a ride, sir.”